Weight for it

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t waiting for something, some result, some decision, even just something to render. But you can be waiting for precisely the same amount of time and one is heavier than the other.

Yes, I’m waiting on something. How could you tell?

I think there are two ways to wait for something without it pressing down on you. No, hang on, call it three: you could also just not care about whatever it is. That does happen and surprisingly often: you pitched for something and know that if you got it, it would be great, but if you don’t, it’s a shrug.

Of the two ways I was originally thinking about, one of them is actually quite similar. Whether you want it or not, you make yourself forget it as if you’re don’t care. This works so rarely that I can actually count the number of times it’s worked out. On both occasions, I would get updates from the people I was waiting for, and apologies for various delays, but on both occasions I was fine. The total certainty that it wasn’t going to happen, that I wasn’t going to get it, meant I could cheerily reply and shed it all from my mind a moment later.

That can’t be the usual thing of thinking you won’t get it because you somehow don’t deserve it, though. Instead, it has to be from the cold producer part of your head, the part where you can see the project from the other peoples’ perspective. For instance, I remember very clearly having a great time at a kind of interview for a gig once and as I walked out, poet Jean Atkin walked in.

Bugger, I thought, even I would hire her over me for this particular job. If they have any sense, I knew, it was her gig and rightly so. They had sense.

Actually, now I think of it, there was another time few years ago when I ended up on a train with poet Bethany Rivers after we’d both pitched for the same work, I came to the same conclusion and I was right, she correctly got the gig, but I also remember this now. She got off the train a stop before me and between her station and mine, I got an email offering me work. It wasn’t as well paid but it was more me and to this day, I’m still involved with that and Bethany is still with that gig.

You may choose to take this as meaning that you never know when you’ll get a commission. I prefer to think of it as a warning that I should never go up against poets.

Anyway, that kind of practical assessment, that’s what I need in order to constructively believe I’m not going to get the thing I’m waiting for. When I don’t run into the competition, it’s harder to make these assessments but, for instance, there was one where I could even see legal hurdles and certainly contractual ones over booking me compared to some unknown other writer. It was complicated. Mind you, I got that one.

I don’t know who else is in the running for this thing I’m waiting on now, and I have no capability of making an assessment over my chances because it isn’t a numbers game. It isn’t me or someone else, it could be me and someone else, it could be no one. Yet this is something like the fourth or fifth step in this particular project’s process and the first three were a complete lightweight doddle to wait for. Lightwait, that’s what I should call them. No expectations, coupled to plenty of awareness that it was all going to be steadily delayed by the coronavirus issues anyway.

I sailed through those waiting times, merrily replying to apologies for delays and having the entire thing vacate my mind again the instant I hit Send.

Not now. Not so much.

Yet there is this other way I’ve got of handling waiting. What I do is –– I don’t. I don’t wait.

There’s nothing I can do to speed up a decision that’s entirely out of my hands, but I am in complete control of what else I do while I’m waiting. And what I am fortunately finding works once more is that I get out there and pitch for something else. Somethings else, many, many somethings elses.

This has gone wrong before. I’ve ended up getting the thing I was waiting for and also every single one of the other things I pitched to do in order to distract myself. It made for an extremely busy period, but if you have a way to make me be that overstretched all the time, I have a limb I want to interest you in.

There is a fourth thing. I promise I wasn’t holding this back, I’ve just been staring at everything I’ve said to you and wondering about the undertow, the way that you know this particular wait is hard. But saying it all to you, I don’t know, it somehow reminds me.

I can count how often I’ve had certain lightwaits and I can’t count how many times I’ve had to wait for something. It’s just that somewhere between twice and countless, it is astounding how many times I’ve been hired by people after they’ve first rejected me.

Repeat this after me so that I can hear you and get it into my head. Rejection is not automatically the end, even when it’s a rejection that matters to you. It’s at least often the start. And if I cannot tell you yet what all of this is about, I want to tell you that it does feel like a new start in a new area. It feels like I’m in a new game, it just seems to come laden with the same waiting weight that all my previous writing work has combined.

I’ll let you know as soon as I can. Although if I appear fixated on chocolate the next time we speak, don’t press.

Getting better and words

Last Saturday, I chaired a panel and it was my 798th public speaking thing since records began in late 2012. A week or so before that, I had a meeting over a writing project I profoundly want.

Let me quantify that word. For ‘profoundly’, read ‘I was shaking before the meeting’. Before that panel last weekend, I was so nervous I felt sick.

There have been two events where –– and who knows why? –– I wasn’t at all nervous beforehand. They both went fine. Can’t even remember them, I just remember they went fine. All of the rest, all of then, follow the same two steps.

First, I’m nervous. Then the event starts and the nerves turn off like a light switch and I am so completely in the moment that reasonably often, a third step follows. A third step where it goes very well. In those 798, I’ve only had three disasters and I fully blame myself for only two of them. Can’t count how many went very well, never think to count how many go well, but it’s obviously a high enough number that it raises an obvious question.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that I’m unhealthy in this nervous worrying and I’ve not a single hesitation in thinking I should lighten up.

But the question is whether it’s worth it. That meeting I shook before, this panel I felt ill with nerves over for weeks, are they worth it?


You bet your life they are

Too many notes

I read a review the other day where the opening line praised a particular drama for being unlike anything else on television. And then the second line said it was a remake of a French TV show.

I’m not going to say that it is this kind of review that makes me mentally downgrade television critics, but if you wanted to think that right now, I wouldn’t object. I remember giving up reading a particularly famous reviewer because after months of repeatedly despairing that there was nothing new on television, ripped apart a show for being different.


Lately I seem to have been reading more reviews where there are what, to me, seem equally ridiculous claims. Most often it’s this: such and such a show is terrible, but this or that actor is great in it.

You cannot separate an actor from the writing or the direction or, I offer, anything else in a production. An actor does not come in and make up their own lines. Writers do not write dreadfully for every character bar one. The director did not tell one actor the piece is a serious historical crime drama and leave the rest thinking it’s farce.

Certainly, unquestionably, some actors are far better than others and certainly one actor may be more right for a particular role than another. I love that only in this circumstance can you genuinely have gradations of right. This actor is more right than this one.

But back to the point. You cannot separate an actor’s performance from the character they are playing. Not from the role, not from the script, not from direction. Every single element of a drama is working together –– or not –– as a whole and none of it can be separated out.

Except the script. You can read the script without any director or cast. Er, also costume design, now I think about it. Considering how badly I dress, it’s remarkable how interesting I think costuming is. A highlight of Strictly Come Dancing for me is the Thursday slot on It Takes Two when designer Vicky Gill talks about costumes. The sheer artistry of the pen sketches she and her team makes, the artwork that is thrown away because it is a step on the route to the final costume instead of a piece of work itself. That reminds me a lot of scripts: they are tools to get you to the finishing line, the production. That they’re amazing on the page is a bonus that few people, compared to the millions viewing, will ever see or even care to see.

I just like how you can look at costumes out of context and you can read scripts by themselves too. But all of this is on my mind today because this week I bought two TV series and in context, both of them have the wrong music.

It turns out that this is something else you can separate from a show: its soundtrack. I should realise that as I used to have an awful lot of soundtrack albums back when there were albums.

I hope I have realised before that music can be enjoyed without the rest of the show. But I am certain I never realised how music is about the only element that can be changed after the fact.

And often is.

Intellectually, I knew for instance that WKRP in Cincinnati had problems with the music used in the show’s radio station setting, and I gathered that the DVD replaced them. But now I’ve bought the second season of Sports Night and I did so in part because the opening of that season begins with track that’s become a favourite. She Will Have Her Way, by Neil Finn, is an unusual choice for the start of a sitcom and it plays out over a very extended sequence. It’s played out very well, so well that I started that episode just to hear it and to see how perfectly it fits.

It perfectly fit alright, but it also perfectly came out again. On the version of Sports Night that you can buy in the US iTunes Store, that song has been replaced entirely by a track called Valentine by Tim Cullen. It’s mostly played over a montage but there are points when those scenes are audible, so this isn’t just someone playing the track loudly, it’s the episode’s audio remixed to remove one track and insert another.

You know that took effort, I imagine it took care. But, sorry Tim Cullen and whoever did this edit, it’s wrong. I’ve remembered the right track for 20 years now and I was actually a little crestfallen that something I think worked so well was now altered.

And then the UK iTunes Store only went and had a sale on the original Magnum, pi. I could talk to you about that show for several hours longer than you’d put with, but forget television history, it’s just a very good series.

If you know it, you have the theme in your head at this moment and may even know that it’s by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. What you are less likely to know is that the theme you’ll have for the rest of today is not the original theme to the show. The original, by the same writers, is just a bit ordinary, a bit flat, compared to what you know. The tune you know was incidental music, possibly end titles music, and it was so for the first several episodes.

Changing it to make it the main theme back in 1981 was a good move and I truly believe helped become a show a hit on the air. Changing it in 2018 when it went onto iTunes, well… unfortunately I’m afraid I think that was a good idea too. I wish I didn’t, I feel my entire point evaporating in front of you.

But there it is. The iTunes digital release has been edited to put the famous theme tune on the start of even the pilot.

You can’t rewrite the past. But you can re-score it. So of all the elements of a drama that can exist outside that drama, the script and the costumes can have a kind of life of their own. But only the music can be replaced later.

Death by “As You Know”

No doubt, the real reason I don’t happen to watch the hit sports comedy “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+ is that it’s about sports. I did love Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” but then that’s the show that famously said:

“It’s about sports. The way ‘Charlie’s Angels’ is about law enforcement.”

Doubtlessly, “Ted Lasso” is about more than its football subject, but unfortunately another reason I don’t watch is that I did read the pilot script. And in scene 2, somewhere in the first half-dozen lines of dialogue, there was this:

HIGGINS: Mrs. Mannion– Excuse me – Miss Welton – George is here… The manager?

Higgins did not say “as you know, George is the manager,” but that’s really what the line is. It’s an “as you know” moment, with one character telling another something they cannot possibly fail to already know –– but we, of course, don’t yet. If there is one thing worse than an “as you know” line, well, it’s the type of line that immediately followed it in “Ted Lasso”:

REBECCA: Yes I know who George is, Higgins.

You can write that line as sarcasm, you can play it as anything you like from that through to impatient annoyance, and none of it matters. Where the “as you know” line is the writer giving notes to the audience, so the response is not a character actually speaking, it is the writer excusing the “as you know” part.

They needn’t bother trying because the excuse is just a megaphone for anyone who missed the clunking “as you know”.

That exchange threw me out of the “Ted Lasso” pilot script and I don’t think I really got back into it again. Certainly I didn’t feel compelled to go watch the show. I am told, quite repeatedly, that the show is better than the scripts –– just typing that has made me twitch –– and that the performances are everything.

I agree that performance is everything. I just also know that directing is everything. That producing is everything. And that writing is everything.

The greatest performance in the world can make a piece better, but performance is interpretation. You are taking something and interpreting it, you are taking something and performing it. If the it doesn’t work, there’s only so far you can possibly make it watchable.

I suggest, then, that this particular “as you know” moment is probably a rarity in the series. I suggest, then, that if people say this is a great and funny comedy, that the scripts have to be great and funny.

But “as you know” shot me out of the story and it always does. You put it in, or networks demand that you put it in, because there’s a terror that the audience won’t immediately understand and so they will immediately stop watching. This manager guy –– who, as you know, is called George –– comes in to see Rebecca and she fires him. Making him an ex-manager is enough, that’s all we need to grasp that he was the manager and now isn’t. Since this appears to be a character we will never speak of again, I’m really not sure it was worth spending an “as you know” on him and the job he hasn’t got anymore.

Actually, reading on a little, I think that whole section clunks, but I was already in a bad mood because of the “as you know” syndrome.

So you throw in an “as you know” to please the network and retain the audience, but the result is – always – that you annoy the audience. There must be some proportion of viewers who miss that moment because they’re on Twitter, although the fact that they can miss it and survive not knowing George’s old job is another clue that the line wasn’t necessary.

And there have to be a larger proportion of viewers who don’t care. You can’t please everyone and it would be a pretty anodyne show if you could. But you don’t have to tell the audience they’re stupid and you cannot, cannot excuse doing that by having another character confirm that they know what we know they must already know.

You also can’t dismiss a hit that’s been picked up for three seasons, you can’t ignore the whole thing because of two lines of dialogue in the pilot script. But it’s not my job to watch any particular show, it isn’t my job to keep reading scripts from any particular series. If you lose me, you lose me and I’m not saying I’m a loss, I’m saying it’s unnecessary.

Take “State of the Union” by Nick Hornby, for instance. It’s a series of ten episodes, each ten minutes long and each set in the moments before a couple go into their weekly marriage counselling session. Part one ends with the man bolting, running up the street before the session door is opened. So in part two, you are dying to know if he came back and joined the appointment.

LOUISE: How are you feeling about this week?
TOM: As you know, I missed the start ––

No, no, okay, this is how that scene really goes:

LOUISE: How are you feeling about this week?
TOM: Well, pretty sure I’ll be there from the beginning.

In terms of straight plot information conveyed, we’ve got what we needed to know. And we got it without an “as you know”. I offer that we really get much more, it’s part of an exchange that says little but speaks volumes about the characters.

“State of the Union” is replete with dialogue that’s heightened but feels natural, feels just how these two characters would really talk. Over and over, it’s about them, and yet constantly it is also filling us in on the plot. Since every episode is set in the ten minutes before their appointment, we of course get the tension building up to what’s going to happen, but we never see it. We have to wait for the next episode and then we get filled in on how that previous session turned out.

Doing that ten times, or whatever, would make me murderous if each one had an “as you know, in the previous session we…” conversation, but there isn’t a single one. Not a single moment in ten episodes where it’s solely the writer filling in the audience. It’s always these two characters talking naturally and it’s a tremendous piece of writing. And of acting, and of directing. Also, actually, of photography: “State of the Union” is a web series but it looks like feature film.

It’s also always doing more than one thing in its dialogue, more than ticking a box to tell us who George is. Maybe that’s what I’m unhappy about, maybe that’s what I’m objecting to. Dialogue that only does one job at a time. “As you know” is annoying, but when there’s nothing else there, nothing telling me more about character, its annoyance is magnified. For me, anyway.

I watched the whole “State of the Union” ten episodes in one day. I will give “Ted Lasso” a go. But it is about sports and I struggle to summon any interest in that.

As you know.

Rising tides

So I see this as my getting to talk to you. More natter than talk, I suppose, and you’re definitely the best listener I know. But if one wanted to get technical about it, Self Distract is a blog. And earlier this week, I ran a workshop for writers, actors, musicians and journalists on how to make blogging part of your creative freelance career.

I’ve done this many times and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it to you because we’re not here to talk about work. This once, though, I need to tell you. Not because, as it turns out, I can’t remember the last time I laughed quite so much over Zoom even as all my video lights were burning me a new headache. And actually not because it is the last one.

Solely to spoil any nicely-constructed drama plan I might have, this week’s workshop was the penultimate for me. Next week is the last one I’m ever doing for this particular organisation and I suppose I could’ve waited until that was done, but I want to write to you while it’s still going. While this company is still live and active and doing great things. Until next week for me and until the end of the month for everyone.

I want to talk to you while there are these workshops, not when there were.

The organisation is the FEU, the Federation of Entertainment Unions. If you were a member of the Writers’ Guild, the Musicians’ Union, Equity or the NUJ, you got free training from the FEU as part of your membership. And such training. Day-long intensive workshops on how to do what we all need to do as freelancers across these disciplines. Finance training, for instance. Where else do freelancers get trained in the finance knowledge we absolutely have to have?

I’ve attended countless FEU sessions in person, over webinars, through their online e-learning system, everything. And I’ve also developed and delivered a lot of them. Blogging, vlogging, email marketing, productivity, technology, I may have missed some out. Each one built to tell people specific, practical things that they will use.

That’s been the thing for me. Practicality. I like working on the theory of writing, for instance, with writers but every attendee of an FEU workshop was doing this creative work for a living. They were giving up time they could, would and sometimes really should be spending on their business. What I showed them had to be useful and it had to be useful right now, or people would leave. It was wonderful.

It is wonderful. For another week.

The FEU secured funding recently, for once getting funding agreed for a long enough period that it could concentrate on creating more of these workshops and continuing to make them free for members. Then the UK government went nah, forget what we said. Some chap needs a few millions for a duck pond or something, doesn’t matter what, chaps have got to stick together, goodbye FEU.

I hope to run my FEU workshops in some form through my own company. I have to imagine or maybe it’s just that I have to hope that the various unions involved will try to run something like this some time.

But for now, they are gone. Or going. Next Wednesday is my last and, as it happens, it’s again about blogging. This week’s had 27 people in and there were about as many more wanting to get on it, so I’ve been asked to do a repeat.

It’s said that you don’t appreciate something until it’s gone. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I know, for instance, that every day I walked in to work at BBC Television Centre I was conscious of the privilege. Same with BBC Pebble Mill. When I see a copy of Radio Times on a newsagent shelf, I’m proud to have worked on it and if I hadn’t appreciated it at the time, I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did.

Same with the FEU. I think, to be fair, that what I’ve usually been conscious of is each individual workshop and how buoyant it’s made me feel. Today I’m thinking back over something like five years of them, that’s the difference.

And if I sound a bit miserable that this resource is being stopped, I am. But I’m also profoundly conscious that it’s got me countless hours working intensely with musicians, actors and journalists as well as other writers. You get siloed, even in a broad area like writing, and that sparking interaction with other creative freelancers is incredible. That interaction has helped me at least as much as the subjects and topics I’ve learned through the FEU.

It’s lifted me, actually. In great times and brutally bad ones, working with the people who run the FEU and working so closely with the people who attended, made me happy. I have no faith and no religion but I do believe a few things and one is that a rising tide lifts all boats. When something good happens to you, I feel great. When you, me, and all of us work together, we all benefit.

So would you do something for me, please? I’d like you to raise a mug of tea to the Federation of Entertainment Unions. And let you and me clink those mugs together especially for the three people there I worked with and for the most. Frances Dredge, Kate Willoughby and Muriel McClymont. I’ll see them all again, just you – or they – try to stop me.

You must write what you want

Poster for Modern Love on Amazon

Poster for Modern Love on Amazon

There’s a thing that I’m sure is going to come up in the Tuesday Night Writing Club. Wait, I haven’t said what that is.

Briefly, it’s a new five-week writing workshop I’m running from next week. Each Tuesday evening from 19:00-21:00 (UK time), the first hour is full-on writing exercises and challenges. Then the second hour is us talking through what we’re writing, what we want to write –– and why we’re not writing it.

There are ten of us but I would like a couple more. If you’re reading this in time, take a look at the Eventbrite page.

Anyway, I don’t know what we’ll end up talking about and of course that is one of the reasons I’m so looking forward to it. However, wherever three or more writers shalt meet, so typically there will come up this certain point that’s been on my mind.

Usually it’s a new writer who says this, but it can be an old one who’s just jaded. Whichever it is, they’ve decided that they must now write the next Harry Potter, the next Twilight, the next 50 Shades, the next insert-latest-hit-book-or-show here.

You can see why they’d think this. Plus it doesn’t hurt that people who aren’t writers assume both that this is what we have to do and that it is what we want to do.

Except the answer is no. There’s a term I know from technology but I have a tiny little reason to suspect may possibly have originated in some sport or other. Don’t skate to where the puck is, skate to where it is going to be.

If you see that dramas about chess are in, don’t write one. Because by the time you’ve even finished writing, let alone got it through production, dramas about chess are old news. Chess, Westerns, everything changes. Except zombie films. For some reason that genre just will not die.

I think that this is obvious and that even if you were worrying about writing something like, I don’t know, the next Line of Duty, you soon see that it’s obvious. Quite clearly, there is no point emulating anything, you must write something new, something you want to write.

And since the emulation never works, you might as well write something new anyway.

Only, for exactly as long as I’ve been thinking this about topics and genres and characters, I’ve been wrongly rigid about everything else. You may want to write a sprawling 100-hour fantasy, I thought, but you’ll never get it on because there is no slot for 100 hours.

Television drama has to be one hour long, I thought. There are exceptions, like the two-hour crime series that Inspector Morse made popular. And television comedy has to be half an hour.

Hand on heart, I still think that should be true, I just know that it technically doesn’t. Take a look at any one-hour drama on Netflix and you’ll see that the episode length varies enormously. Or I can’t remember which episode it is now, but there was a Doctor Who which came out as over 60 minutes in the edit and BBC Wales had to make a case to BBC1 why it should be allowed. And why it should be allowed to mean the rest of the Saturday night schedule should shuffle along.

Curiously, if Doctor Who had aired on a weeknight then, there wouldn’t have been any discussion. BBC1 has to hit the Ten O’Clock news, not the Five Past Ten one. So there are still technical limits.

I do just also think that there are writing ones. I realise that we’ve all been trained to expect sitcoms to be thirty minutes, but when they’re not, you can usually tell. Amazon Prime UK has extended versions of some Parks and Recreation episodes and I could not tell you which ones are longer because it all works so well.

But then I think it was Arrested Development that let its regular episodes stretch out a bit once it was on a streaming service, and there you knew. There you knew the episodes felt flabby. Time constraints are important for writing.

The reason every bit of this is on my mind now, though, is because another set-in-stone technical issue appears to have vanished. For as long as I can think, television would not do anthology series, just would not do them.

You’re thinking of The Twilight Zone, but remember how long ago that was. For a mixture of practical and marketing reasons, it’s not been viable to make anthologies. The practical being that a season of separate stories –– entirely separate casts, sets and locations –– is gigantically more expensive than one following the same characters.

And then the marketing one is that viewers like to follow the same characters. I do. I like coming back to spend more time with characters I like.

It was so certain that anthologies were a thing of the past that in the 1980s, Don Bellisario devised Quantum Leap as a trick. Its leading man “leaps” into the bodies of different people in every episode because this is really an anthology in disguise.

That was in the days when network television existed and when network television was extremely profitable. Today it isn’t, so naturally more expensive shows just aren’t getting made.

Except they are. And anthologies are.

Amazon Prime commissioned Modern Love in 2019 and I’ve just finished watching the eight episodes because I’ve been savouring each one, letting each one linger. It is the anti-binge show, the one you do want to race through, but you also want to hold on to.

I utterly relish that anthology and it doesn’t hold back on the expense.

I have no idea how we ended up with big bucks network television fading away. Or how we cope now with every new show competing not with whatever else is airing at the same time, but with a hundred thousand other shows and channels and entire streaming platforms.

But if it gets us Modern Love, I’m in. There are plenty of shows I’d like to write for, but I yearn to be good enough to write Modern Love.

Dear boy


On the left there, a somewhat poorly-scanned page from Alan Plater’s screenplay of Fortunes of War, based on Olivia Manning’s novels. On the right, a page from my Doctor Who script, Spaceport Fear. I am shocked to realise that 25 years separate the two, but what joins them is who said these first words of the characters. Prince Yakimov on the left and Elder Bones on the right were both played by Ronald Pickup, who died this week.

I’m a bit numb about that. It’s not like I knew him well and considering that he’s had the most astonishingly long and varied career, it’s a bit bad that I inescapably associate him and that fantastic voice of his with these two roles.

But Fortunes of War means the world to me. I can sit here, talking to you, and play pretty much the entire serial in my head, frame by frame. If you don’t know it, I’d say I envy you having it to enjoy, except that it’s quite hard to find now. Search YouTube for Fortunes of War, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. That’ll do you.

And you can always buy Doctor Who: Spaceport Fear to listen to.

Only, if the name Ronald Pickup makes me instantly picture Prince Yakimov saying “dear boy” in that voice, when I close my eyes I’m walking into the Big Finish studio where that Doctor Who is being recorded – and I’m trying to place the voice of whoever is playing Elder Bones.

I don’t remember why I didn’t already know who all the cast were. I certainly knew that Colin Baker was the Doctor and I was excited at the prospect of seeing Bonnie Langford perform my lines as Mel. I suspect that something changed, that I hadn’t been due to go to the studio and suddenly I could. Oftentimes you don’t go because you’re off writing something else, but whatever the reason, whenever the chance, it is gorgeous to hear first-class actors delivering your lines.

So I’m walking into the control room, I’m hearing that voice, and I’m also absorbing the news that Bonnie Langford isn’t there. I didn’t meet her, I’ve still not met her, and on that day her lines were read in by another member of the cast. Read in so well that I doubted the news, I was so sure that this was Mel talking to whichever man had that great voice. (Langford couldn’t make that recording day so she came in a week later, I believe it was, and recorded all her lines in one go then. I thought that must sound awful, but listen to the story: you cannot tell she isn’t reacting to everyone around her. It’s a remarkable job by everybody from Langford herself to director Barnaby Edwards and the whole crew.)


I was obviously late because they were all deep into recording. And the way the studio is laid out, I could see Colin Baker very easily, but some of the others were completely out of view. So I had this glorious voice filling the control room as if coming from nowhere. I know I know it, I know I recognise it, but it was a good twenty minutes before there was a recording break and I got to see that, yes, it really was Ronald Pickup.

In that twenty minutes, I went from wondering who the voice was, to wondering whether that was really Mel talking to him, and through the stages of mentally comparing what they were all saying to what I’d written. And then so very quickly into forgetting it was all my words, all my story, and just completely believing that this was the Doctor and Mel in some serious trouble.

Big Finish always gets superb casts so I freely admit that I’ve been starstruck at regular intervals. But for half an hour or so over lunch that day, I got to natter away about Alan Plater and Fortunes of War with Prince Yakimov.

Dear boy.



Four out of Tenet

I don’t want to review Tenet, I want to say that it is the most difficult film to understand that I can remember -– just not in the way I believe writer/director Christopher Nolan would presumably want. Tenet is not the mind-bending, brain-swelling complex tale of time travel that its trailer would have you believe, it’s just bloody loud.

That’s what I want to talk to you about. And yes, I did go through a spell of thinking I’m simply getting old and deaf, but that’s not it. As I realised, when I gave up on the film about two thirds of the way through and instead read the screenplay.

Read that script and you will find the sound and fury cover up a lot of nothing. The dialogue that you didn’t quite catch turns out to be mostly pretty pedestrian exposition. Then the lead character’s name is actually “Protagonist”, which seems like it explains why you don’t especially care whether he lives or dies, since clearly Nolan didn’t either.

The time travel stuff does look fantastic on the screen but turns out to be just as irritatingly simplistic on the page as you had begun to suspect. Some people from the future are waging war on us, the people in their past. It makes for some marvellous visuals as certain characters are moving forward in time while their enemies are moving backwards through it.

Of course, if people in the future kill everybody in their past, they’re fucked. Tenet admits this and gives us a wee lecture on the Grandfather Paradox, but then shrugs it off completely. A character with an actual name says that, well, yes, no, that’s a bit of an enormous plot hole, you’re right, but it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s just a movie, don’t worry about it. Or he effectively says that, having actually shrugged it off in a way that says we’re stupid for spotting it, move on.

That’s one of a handful of incidents that emphasise the fact that this is a film, moments which jump you out of the story and into being aware of the artifice. Yet according to Nolan, who always sounds so bemused that anyone could want to hear his films, this is part of the experience. Simplistic plots dressed up as complex ones, dialogue you cannot hear, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all an Experience.

I actually like dialogue that you can’t hear. There’s a gorgeous scene in the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk with Me, where we cannot make out what people are saying in a nightclub. All these years later I can’t really remember just how it felt in the cinema, but I think I recall straining to hear while finding it arresting, compelling, even scary. Plus I remember it then being funny when the DVD came out and people discovered that there were optional subtitles for every word.

That scene was deliberately impossible to hear, and equally, Christopher Nolan deliberately chose to have the Tenet audio be so poor.

He’s done more than that, he’s also chosen to criticise people for saying they can’t hear a thing. He’s said that he consciously decided that he would have the audio mix be right for only the very finest cinemas — and he’s then also complained about cinemas getting it wrong.

I don’t believe that anyone can complain about a writer’s artistic intention. Choices made, decisions taken, it’s up to the writer/director what they do. It’s just not up to them whether we like it or not, whether we’re happy at the money it cost to buy the film, or the taste of the aspirin afterwards.

Nolan’s dismissal of this particular criticism is irritating, and it does contribute to how right now I think I’ve had enough. I have never chosen to see a film because of who directed it, or who stars in it, and only occasionally because of who wrote it. Always and forever, it is the story that does or doesn’t attract me, so I’m sure there will be a future Christopher Nolan film where I do want to watch.

When I know he wrote and made it, though, that will stop me rushing.

And I see little chance that I’ll ever watch the final third or so of Tenet.

I do believe that writing is for the audience, not for the writer, but I’m also aware that there are many different audiences. Just because I don’t like something, it obviously doesn’t mean you won’t, and I would argue that Nolan has to have the right to make the films he wants. Considering that he gets to make films when others don’t, he should surely be making the films he wants. It’s a bit of a waste if he’s getting the commissions instead of other writers and then he’s just knocking out something without care or choice or decisions.


There is still a line somewhere. There is a line between hoping to connect with audience and instead, choosing to irritate them seemingly solely because you can. Antagonise me, upset me, challenge me, but don’t piss me off and make think I should’ve bought Wonder Woman 1984 instead.

But, hey, Christopher Nolan is pretty much infinitely more successful than I am so I’m going to take a telling and apply the same thinking to my work.


My next play will be staged in a locked, sound-proofed room with no windows, and I will charge you to stand outside it for two and a half hours.

Don’t look at me like that. I suddenly want to tall it The Tenet of Wildfell Hall. But whatever it’s name and however little you can see of it, I know it will be an Experience.

Je ne comprends pas, but…

It’s possible that you’ve noticed this, but the UK — or perhaps more correctly England, yet the whole nation is getting clobbered by it — is going through a protracted period of withdrawing from the world. I don’t think it’s planned, I see it as schoolboys folding their arms and believing everyone will come begging. But whatever is ultimately behind it, the result is that we’re more isolated and more turning our backs on everywhere else — except on television.

This week I saw Call My Agent for the first time and it is a delight, I’m feeling warm just mentioning it to you. I’m a single episode in and yet I’m already intending to eke out the series as the whole run isn’t all that long and I want to relish it.

And at the same time, I am regularly checking online to see when the next episodes of Lupin are available.

These are both French television dramas, both on Netflix. Other foreign language dramas are available and always have been, but not to the extent they are now. I’ve long been a sucker for subtitles: back when you used to flick through channels instead of menus of shows, if I caught something with a subtitle, I was locked in to the end because I had to read what came next. Had to.

But that was always late night on BBC2 or BBC4, and now high-budget, high-profile subtitled or dubbed foreign-language dramas are getting 70 million viewers.

Now, that 70 million is the figure for Lupin. Netflix rarely reveals figures unless they’re particularly good. It’s a curious thing about streaming video: none of the companies are required to publish their ratings, so none of them do until they’ve got a headline-worthy one. Even then, nobody can verify them.

And of course the 70 million for Lupin is a worldwide figure. Netflix hasn’t mentioned that the show apparently isn’t as popular in France as it is everywhere else, and Netflix certainly hasn’t said how many viewers were in the UK.

I think that’s actually part of how we’re seeing global dramas now. Netflix would presumably like a lot of viewers in the UK, but it doesn’t matter the way it used to. The UK doesn’t matter the way it used to. The UK used to be hugely important because it was a big importer of English-language television. The UK is the reason Australia’s Neighbours soap kept going for decades. It’s one of the reasons that America’s 1980s Fame lasted four more years in syndication after NBC cancelled its network television run.

I think that the just as network television is vanishing, so the idea of different territories for selling TV shows to is being erased. It’s not there yet, we still have BBC making daytime dramas that are really produced to be shown in primetime in other countries, specifically ones where rosy cosy images of England sell well.

But overall, television drama is on its way to becoming global and instead of that meaning everything becoming a bit more bland, a bit more safe, a bit more homogeneous, we’re somehow getting to see tremendous dramas we never used to. I can’t think of a time in British television history where we had French and Spanish dramas available on demand, where there actually is demand for them, or where foreign-language shows are being talked about as much as these are.

So as Britain tries to pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist and anyway will can’t survive without us, we in the UK are getting to see more of the globe through the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV+.


While I utterly love this, while I think it is fantastic that a great series can now punch far higher and wider than ever before, it’s not an accident. There is an element of how streaming services need libraries of material and here’s some material, let’s add that to the pile.

But it’s really because there is a quota.

I wrote an article about this in 2019 which reported that by the end of 2020, all streaming services would be required to have 30% of their libraries made locally. So if you’re an American service, as they all are, but you want to operate in France, you have to have 30% of your archive be made in that country.

Now, there are ways to fiddle this. Co-productions, co-financing, it all makes the country of origin be a little debatable. But back in 2019, the article I was commissioned to write was focusing on how, at the time, none of the services met the quota.

Netflix and Amazon Prime were close so I imagine they’ve made it. At the time, the then-new Apple TV+ looked like only about 6-7% of its small library was European. And Disney+ was believed to have 4.7%. I don’t know if they caught up and I can’t seem to find out, but it must’ve been a struggle.

Although I did think of a solution for them. Since the required quota was a percentage of their library, you can see how they could each fiddle the figures. Just remove a hell of a lot of shows from the European versions of Netflix, Amazon, Apple and so on. There are already extensive differences between the libraries available in any given country, because of rights and contractual issues. So I’m honestly surprised they don’t appear to have done that because it’s a lot easier to take a show off your list than it is to make or buy more series.

Instead, while I don’t have figures for this part, it does seem as if the services have bought, made, or co-produced more series to meet this quota.

And it definitely seems that this has worked for them in more than just box-ticking legal-form quota requirements. Now that we are seeing foreign-language series and these streaming services are seeing that we’re seeing them, we’re going to get more. We’ll get more because these shows are popular, not because they fit a criteria.

That’s the bit I love. Show people new drama and it works. We are now seeing more global hits that are a success not because their good bits are ironed out to make them palatable globally or because they’re the TV equivalent of Easy Listening. We’re seeing them because they are fresh and great and they are showing us parts of the world we perhaps didn’t see, even when we were part of the EU.

I love, I deeply love how I’ve ended up in massive conversations about Il Ministero Del Tempo, a Spanish time-travel series. It makes me so happy that the conversations were never about the fact that it’s in Spanish, they were always about how such a great show shot itself in the foot so badly with one episode that we all stopped watching the series.

Drama is bringing us together even as other factors are keeping us apart. Writing is bringing us together and it is reaching out across nations and languages. It is so great.


I said there was a quota. It’s a European Union quota.

We in the UK are benefiting from an EU quota not because we’re part of the European Union, not because we have any say anymore, but because as far as all streaming services are concerned, we just don’t matter. Nobody’s going to go whoo-hoo, we can have less than 30% locally-produced shows in the UK, they’re just going to lump us in with the rest of the continent.

The world is global regardless of what the UK, or perhaps most specifically England, seems to think.

I can get a bit miserable about the state of the nation and the state of politics, but if the UK is sidelining itself, at least I’ve got 23 more episodes of Call My Agent and another half a season of Lupin to relish.

The standard wasn’t so high, the decision wasn’t so difficult

Whether it’s when an awards ceremony announces its nominees or when the judges email to say you haven’t been selected, it is seemingly a contractual obligation that they open with “the standard of entries was so high”. On pain of death, they will then also say that the judges “had to make a very difficult decision”.

It just isn’t always true.

Sometimes it’s not even close.

I can’t count now the number of times I’ve either been a judge or in some way involved in an awards ceremony, and thankfully there are times when all of this was thoroughly accurate and true. That just occasionally took some work.

The single most useful thing I’ve ever done in any award judging was fiddle a category. I remember a book award jury where we were all a bit deflated because the one that was going to win in a particularly prestigious category was fine. It was okay. We’d all said sure, it gets through to the next stage. But it was sitting there on the table, at the top of the pile in this category, up there less from merit and more from attrition, and you just could not see yourself proclaiming that it was the greatest book in the year.

As it happened, though, a completely separate category had a couple of titles where you would’ve been happy to proclaim that. And I was the one who spotted that the very best of those was only in its category because that’s what its publisher had entered it for. It could equally have been entered into this other prestigious category so I proposed we move it.

And we did. That book moved from one category to another and, totally deservedly, won that more prestigious prize. I still wonder if the publisher spent any time wondering whether he or she had made a mistake on the entry form. But it was such a good book that I wish I could tell you its name.

On the other hand, I’ve been in awards where there was no such option and while the winner was certainly the best, that wasn’t saying much at all. I remember one theatre awards in particular where all ten judges, or however many it was, agreed instantly that there was only a single possible contender for either of the two awards on offer. We were off in this side room, meeting to discuss all of the short plays we’d just seen, and before the biscuits even arrived, we knew the winner.

We just didn’t like it.

The play that won both awards that night was utterly superb, so very much better than anything else in the night — until its last two minutes. Those last two minutes destroyed the play. And yet it had to win, there was nothing else close.

So that writer had a brilliant night, collecting two awards for her play. But both she and at least some of the audience went away thinking right, I need to write great dramas with exceptionally crap endings.

I tell you now, I’m ahead of the game here. I write plays that are crap from start to finish.

Let me tell you a happier tale. No, two happier tales: I was at the Writers’ Guild Awards in January 2020 when I saw the writers of Danger Mouse arrive. I can see me there on the steps, coming within one pixel of greeting them with congratulations because I already knew they’d won. Again, it was a deserved win, too, they had written a gem of an episode that is making me smile just telling you about it.

It’s a little unusual to know the winner, though, even when you’ve been involved. I knew with that book because I was at the final meeting, and I knew about Danger Mouse because I was presenting something else and had been there for the run through.

But even when you’re a judge, you often don’t know the final outcome. If you don’t happen to know how judging works, what always happens is that it starts with the writer or producer or someone submits their work. That gets studied and reviewed and poked at, and then if it’s good enough it becomes an official nomination. Then in various different ways it will be sent to multiple judges who’ll typically come back with their list of favourites, why they liked it so much, and so on. Then there’ll be another round or two whittling it down, arguing, debating and so on, until ultimately there is a winner.

Quite often, unless you’re involved in that very last stage, you can know full well what you voted for but not know who actually won.

Which is why at a previous Writers’ Guild award, I can remember crossing my fingers during the theatre category. And when Frances Poet won for her play Gut, I punched the air and called out “Yes!” sufficiently loudly to be a little embarrassed.

But come on, seeing tremendous work honoured, seeing utterly superb drama writing held up to the light for more people to see, it is fantastic.

It’s just rarely all that difficult a decision.

It has got so that when I hear “the standard was so high”, I think yeah, right, sure. And when I hear “the judges made the difficult decision” I’ve actually felt a bit patronised. It doesn’t matter what the awards are, whether I’m involved, the standard lines just always sound flat. Maybe we should have a Best Awards Award to make up for it.

If we did, I’d be nominating any ceremony hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Fey is a writing hero to me anyway, but just go on YouTube and watch those two hosting over the years.

Funny I should say that now, though. Because I wanted to talk to you about all of this, it was all on my mind, specifically because of the next awards ceremony that, as it happens, they are going to host. They’ll front the Golden Globes again this year and, no doubt, will be superb.

I just don’t think the awards themselves can be.

Look, there were somewhere between 400 and 500 new television dramas or comedies last year, I can’t expect my favourites to all be nominated. And I’m fine with Emily in Paris getting a nomination even though I preferred reading the script, I enjoyed it more on the page than on the screen.

But shows like I May Destroy You are not nominated. That show belongs in a new category of dramas I’m daunted to watch. It’s a Sin is in there too.

Yet its exclusion from the Golden Globes, the US equivalent of the UK’s television BAFTAs, seems peculiar. It seems like the Mona Lisa failing to get a nomination in the award for Best Mona Lisa.

Alan Plater, who won so many awards that I remember this whole cabinet he had of them, said to me once that you can’t take awards too seriously, though.

“Don’t let the BAFTAs grind you down,” he said.